Burn After Reading (Rated PG-13)   4 Stars

    {mosimage}Burn After Reading (96 minutes) is a worthy follow-up to the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men. Unlike the latter film, which was good but not great, the ending to this movie actually makes sense.
    At its heart, the film is a twisted spy caper movie in the same way that Fargo was a criminal caper movie. All the elements are there, but the plot is a little bit to the left of what you would naturally expect. The highlights of the movie include the fabulous ensemble cast and the dialogue, which, despite all the criticism, the Coens’ excel at writing.
We open with a cinematic plunge towards a building, where CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is threatened with demotion, resulting in his subsequent resignation. Once home, his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is outraged at his unemployment, and consults with a divorce lawyer while Osbourne decides to write his memoirs rather than look for another job.
    It turns out that Katie is having an affair, and this leads into an exploration of her relationship with Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel).
    Meanwhile, the files the divorce lawyer copied from Osbourne’s computer are found at a local gym, where the employees’ misinterpretations lead Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) into a series of misadventures. These misadventures culminate in a trip to the Russian Embassy with unexpected consequences. At the same time, Linda is obsessed with an Internet dating service where she meets the aforementioned Harry, who has clear issues with fidelity.
    Osbourne’s discovery of his wife’s divorce action leads him to ever-escalating violence, but his former employers the CIA are too busy playing catch-up to intervene in his rampage (other than to cover it up). We end on a hilarious note, with a CIA official (David Rasche) summing up the final toll from Osbourne’s break with the social compact for his unnamed superior (J.K. Simmons).
    Overall, it was a very enjoyable movie that I am still thinking about.
    Even so, there are issues with the acting, and not everyone will respond so positively to it. While it is nice to see the Coens’ return to their darkly comic roots, the film is a smidge short for such a complicated plot. While most of the acting is spot on, The Clooney overacted just a tad in his introductory scenes, and Swinton (who earned my undying devotion with her 1992 role as Orlando) does not quite manage to achieve the nuanced character she was trying for, instead coming off as a caricature. Her lack of clear motivation probably stemmed from her lack of screen time, understandable in an ensemble cast such as this.
    Interesting to note is the lamentable fact that of the main cast, Tilda Swinton is the only actor whose character was not written for her specifically. According to several interviews, the Coens’ actually wrote the characters specifically for Malkovitch, McDormand, Clooney and Pitt to play.
    Another disappointment, this one on a purely personal level, stems from the failure to have Rasche speak to his gun as to an old friend. No, I do not think he should be inextricably identified with his 1986 role in Sledgehammer for the rest of his career, but this is a movie that plays up the gun violence to the extent that a longing glance at a gun would not have been out of place.
    As with other Coen movies such as Raising Arizona and Fargo, this one is a story of self-important people too wrapped up in their own self-aggrandizement to look realistically at the world around them.

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